In his new film, George Clooney plays a man who is at the end of his ropes so goes along with the schemes of a huge multinational corporation that harms people in their quest for making money.
In real life, George Clooney is a man who makes lots of money, but takes money to promote the products of a huge multinational corporation who promotes products that harms children

Tasked with sorting out embarrassments behind the scenes for its megaclients, Clooney’s character finds himself in a moral dilemma — and in mortal danger — while trying to help the firm protect a client with a toxic product.

Asked at a Venice news conference about ads for Nespresso, a coffee brand by multinational Nestle, in which he stars, Clooney said he did not work for Nestle, he just did the Nespresso ads.

“I’m not going to apologize to you for trying to make a living every once in a while. I find that an irritating question,” Clooney said unsmilingly.

The dirty little secret about infant formula killing children is nothing new. We boycotted Nestle thirty years ago for promoting baby formula in the third world with a sophisticated advertising campaign.

Poor mothers, and struggline middle class mothers who saw the campaigns were persuaded that formula, not old fashioned breast feeding, was better for their babies.

But often the formula was mixed with unclean water, resulting in the babies dying of diarrhea. And as the children got larger, and required more milk, often families couldn’t afford to buy it. As a result, the children got less milk, or parents “stretched” their supply by adding flour or other less nutritious fillers. Either way, the child ended up underweight and malnourished.

So the irony was that when I worked in poor rural areas, a mom had to breast feed, and would lose maybe one child. But when I worked in an African city, my patients were more affluent, but it was not unusual to see working moms (who were unable to breast feed at work, so used formula) who lost four out of five children.

In 1977, activist started a campaign to boycott Nestle to clean up their act. And it worked.
Or has it?

Yes and no.

This UK Guardian report on how Nestle markets baby milk formula in Bengladesh shows they avoid promoting formula to mothers: but continue an aggressive promotion to doctors and hospital staff.

Public advertising by baby-milk manufacturers is explicitly banned in the WHO code and in Bangladeshi law, but Ahmed takes me to a doctor’s waiting room in a Dhaka suburb whose walls are adorned with posters showing healthy-looking babies, and the names of baby-milk manufacturers (not Nestlé, in this case). Strangely, it seems to me, the babies in the posters are all Caucasian: but Ahmed has an explanation. “For many people here, what white people do is the right thing to do,” he says. “So putting white people on posters like these sends out the message that it’s the western way, the best way. It’s one of the many subtle ways in which breastfeeding is undermined here.”

Similarly, slick advertising convinces many here in the Philippines to use this product, despite government and NGO campaigns to promote breast feeding. And these companies were able to use their huge budgets and influence to have the local court back their ability to promote their product.

A major reason why these goods are popular despite being expensive and vastly inferior to breast milk is the aggressive advertising of milk companies. The public seems mesmerized by milk ads which claim to make children more intelligent, healthy and strong forgetting that infant formula remains a poor substitute to breast milk.

Last year, the Department of Health imposed a ban on the promotion and advertising of breast milk substitutes. This regulation was challenged by milk companies in the Supreme Court arguing that it infringed on freedom of trade and the freedom to inform the public on infant formulas. The Supreme Court sided with the petitioners and granted a temporary restraining order which prevented health authorities to enforce the ban on milk ads. The order is still effective today.

The profit in baby formula is huge, but a Hollywood crusade to make known the issue and to threaten another boycott could save more babies lives than a flashy adoption of one more token baby.

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I wrote about the problems caused by formula in an earlier post HERE.
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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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